Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
Can casting someone in a video game constitute elder abuse?
That’s the kind of question that drifted through my mind after a week with Crime Boss: Rockay City, a new(-ish) crime game from first-time studio Ingame Studios. (Ish, because Crime Boss actually came out on PC way back in late March, to what may be the least fanfare I’ve ever seen an ostensibly big-budget game receive; it arrived on consoles last week to a similarly wet fart of interest.) I’ll be honest: I put time in on Crime Boss for two reasons, neither flattering: First, a sort of perverse curiosity. And second, and more bluntly: The fact that Final Fantasy XVI was still a few days away from coming out, and I needed something inconsequential to fill that time.
Games rarely get more inconsequential than Crime Boss: Rockay City.
At its core, the title is a clear riff on Overkill Software’s well-received Payday games, tasking players with sneaking and shooting their way through a series of urban heists. The sneak/shoot split here is bracingly egalitarian, in so far as neither system is especially fun: Sneaking relies on unclear sightlines and a messy “intimidation” mechanic designed to stop you from gunning down every rent-a-cop who gets in your way, while the gunplay is floaty and bland, asking you to gun down dozens of basically identical police officers every few minutes after a heist goes pear-shaped, with guns that never feel quite right.
If you’re online in the game’s quickplay mode, you at least have the benefit of human cooperation to paper over some of these cracks. But if you’re playing through the game’s campaign—its one really interesting feature, more on that in a sec—you’re stuck with a crew of bots, whose grasp on commands starts at “shoot any enemy you see” and stops well before “For the love of Christ, please pick up the jewelry you’re standing in front of and throw it in the escape van.” (Nothing screams “fun heist action” like dutifully switching between each of your characters to get them to do things the bot AI resolutely refuses to do.)
The campaign mode, at least, is a semi-fresh idea: Players are asked to manage a criminal empire in the titular Florida
citay city, pulling heists, securing turf, and getting into fights with rival gangs. There’s even a sort of roguelike element at play; you’re encouraged to bring protagonist Travis Baker on missions, both because he’s fairly powerful, and because sending him on jobs accrues experience points that give permanent bonuses to your operation. But if Travis dies on a mission, your campaign immediately ends, forcing you to restart with whatever upgrades you’ve managed to scrape together.
There’s an interesting tension here, even if it’s criminally under-explored: Nothing that happens on the game’s map screen ever gets close to what might be called “strategic,” but you’re still being asked to make risk-reward assessments from time to time. Is it worth launching a turf defense that’s likely to fail, or should you cede the territory and save your soldiers for another fight? Can you manage a low-level heist with a single crew member, cutting down on costs and gaining a quick infusion of easy cash? Is it worth risking your life for one more bag of loot? None of these are deep questions, but they do still require some thought.
Which is more than can be said for Rockay City’s story, which is the element that takes the game swiftly away from the territory of “mixed success” and into the realm of “batshit failure.” See, Ingame has attempted to cover for the fact that their game has no narrative beyond “generic crime stuff” by packing the game’s cast with the A- and B-list actors of yesteryear, transformed into C- and D-listers by the cruel march of time. You might remember when the game’s star, Michael Madsen, was brought onstage at the Game Awards last year, in one of the strangest moments of that always-strange show; now imagine getting to spend several hours with that exact same odd and stilted energy, except now Madsen’s distinctive voice is coming out of a digital marionette that very nearly looks like Michael Madsen in his prime. It’s a horrorshow, from start to finish.
But Madsen, at least, is giving an enthusiastic performance, for all that he typically sounds like he’s growled 20,000 nearly identical lines into a microphone, so that the game’s editors could try to reassemble them into some semblance of human dialogue after the fact. Kim Basinger, Danny Glover, and Vanilla Ice all fare far worse, barely existing as shallow parodies of themselves. (Michael Rooker comes off unscathed, though; you’re never going to catch Rooker giving anything less than total, deranged commitment to every part he plays.)
The most horrifying of them all, though, is Chuck Norris, pulled from the dusty backshelves of internet meme nostalgia to play the game’s antagonistic sheriff. Never a great thespian, the 83-year-old Norris sounds here like he’s cold-reading straight off of cue cards, delivering every line with the urgency and gravitas of a man sleepwalking his way through a telemarketer scam call script. The fact that the game “rewards” you for campaign progression by dropping another deeply depressing Norris monologue on your head—exposition arriving with all the urgency of a slow Sunday stroll in the garden—only highlights how infuriating and weird the game’s delivery of its “story” is. Given that it’s “all-star” cast is one of the game’s biggest selling points, it only underscores what a strange and pointless exercise this entire game has revealed itself to be.